Posts from 26th March 2000

Mar 00

BRITNEY SPEARS – “Born To Make You Happy”

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BRITNEY SPEARS – “Born To Make You Happy” (MP3)
Mr. Tim Finney swears by this one. On the other hand, Mr. Tim Finney is Britney’s age: for an old geezer like myself it’s a disquieting experience, a throatier-than-ever Britney plumbing now-absurdist, now-frightening depths of teen abjection. She’d do anything, she doesn’t know how to live without his love, she sounds like the title is if anything underplaying matters. This way lies an injunction order. It’s not a ballad (thank goodness), but the music is statelier and less piston-pop than previously, giving Britney more room to emote. Which she does: the general line on teenpop singing seems to stress its blandness, but “Born…” gives the lie to that argument – the only problem is, it’s precisely because it’s such a felt performance that it seems so grotesque.

This Way For The Future

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Kelis – Kaleidoscope

Well, first of all, you should buy it because it’s got the first classic single of the 21st Century on it. “Caught Out There” is perfect – you can get off on the ebullient gimmickry of the hook, you can shake it to the juddering beats, you can thrill to Kelis’ splintered dialogue, or you can surrender to the computer-game production, that endless rain of falling laser bleeps which has been turning the radio into an arcade all year. “Caught Out There”‘s been painted as searingly angry, but it’s far too goofy for that. It’s also been dismissed as an R&B “You Oughtta Know”, which cuts a little deeper, but really Kelis’ hit stands in relation to Alanis’ as “White Lines” does to Clapton’s “Cocaine”.

Does Kaleidoscope offer anything else to cartwheel the charts so totally? No – how could it? – but the surprise is how close it comes and how far it wanders in the attempt. Kelis’ record takes a diversity-first approach – Afro-futurist bubblegum next to chocolate-box swing, floatation tank R&B versus Lauryn-a-like preachery, TLC girl-strut played off against fractured post-hop pop. This range isn’t down to the star so much as to her producers, the Neptunes. Kelis doesn’t hurt, of course – she’s got a smooth, mutable voice which adapts easily to anything the Neptunes throw at it – but for all her charisma this is only half her show. The Neptunes have worked out that ’00 is when R&B producers get to step out of thanks-clotted CD booklets and act like Names: on Kaleidoscope they get almost as many shout-outs as Kelis does.

Deservedly, too: the album is stuffed with fresh ideas, hooks and nagging moments. The Neptunes pitch their sound in the rewarding middle ground between Princely party-funk and the rattle, lurch and snap of today’s Timbaland-steeped popscape, with nearly every track offering a surprise or two. “Roller Rink”‘s production is a jewelbox of synth sounds, and its chorus is nursery-rhyme simple, but the sentiments – “Imagine you and me fucking in a spaceship” – are gleefully horny. “Wouldn’t You Agree” is 100% swingbeat syrup until the dissonant brass squalls in and the chorus is suffused in an eerie, slippery keening. “Good Stuff” doesn’t offer any twists, but with a beat that swaggering it hardly needs to. Most wonderful of all is “Mafia”, exotic and dangerous, Kelis’ sultry vocal draped over nervy cardiac beats. “Of course I’d die for you” she purrs, and you think: this is the best pop in the world right now.

It doesn’t all work.“Ghetto Children” does the wholemeal thing passably, but the guest singer cloys and nobody’s heart seems to be in it. “Game Show”, meanwhile, hints at what irritants and disappointments might follow if the Neptunes turn their freaky-kiddybeat thing into a full-time schtick. Luckily, they and Kelis mostly have a firm grip on their new pop aesthetic: a glammy take on R&B, spacey soda-stream raygun boogie mixing pioneer and party spirit. The Neptunes love toy-box sounds – clockwork beats, wobbly bass, crisply distinct keyboard settings – which they layer up and fill out with rich washes of voice or strings. You can get their measure best on a track like “Mars”, where the drums rattle like biscuit tins and the laser guns sound like they came out of a Christmas stocking, but you still can’t help yourself throwing sci-fi shapes when the chorus hits.

Kaleidoscope is good-humoured and positive, staying clear of the current ice-queen money-talks trend in female R&B, but musically siding firmly with the futuristic pop which Destiny’s Child, TLC et al. pushed forward last year. It’s an excellent album, maybe even a breakthrough – the most convincing pop-soul record for ages, because it shows how soul needn’t be a learned style, needn’t have one eye on the past all the time. For anyone even vaguely interested in keeping pace with pop music, I’d say it’s a necessity.

DR. DRE feat. SNOOP DOGGY DOGG – “Still D.R.E.”

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DR. DRE feat. SNOOP DOGGY DOGG – “Still D.R.E.” (CD Single)
We learn a total of two things from “Still DRE”. 1) Eminem sells a lot of records. 2) Dr. DRE hasn’t changed his name in the last eight years. We learn this second thing many times. Now, if you were one of those people who still think the rapping is all that matters in hip-hop, you might wish to hear no more. But in the face of lyrical adversity, this single wins through, simply because it’s perhaps the most Kraftwerk-influenced hip-hop track since “Planet Rock”, with a mournfully restrained synth-squiggle that’s Straight Outta Dusseldorf. That one instrumental touch turns the track around: the rest is stringy menace and an unflinching beat, adequate but by itself nothing special. Such is the enduring beauty of hip-hop – the way one sound can switch a tune from being blah to being a blast. It’s a lesson Kraftwerk themselves could have usefully picked up.

PRIMAL SCREAM – “Kill All Hippies”

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PRIMAL SCREAM – “Kill All Hippies” (7″)
After filleting “Swastika Eyes” in the Singles Bar I ended up really liking it. I doubt I’ll say the same of this footling effort, where Mani does his best to give the track a bassline backbone and the rest of the last-for-now gang in town do their best to stop him. The music’s a bit of mess: what about the message? Well, a nice sampley woman tells us to destroy conformity, and Bobby Gillespie sings in a grisly falsetto: “You got the money / I got the soul / Can’t be bought / Can’t be sold”. I find it pretty unlikely Bobby’s got less money than, for example, me, and if he does it’s solely because he spent it all on drugs. “Got the soul” can be roughly translated as “Got the right records”. However the cant-be-bought-and-sold stuff is accurate, given that most people are surely acquiring copies of the Scream’s Telegraph-endorsed rebellion opus through pirate MP3s. I know I am. Rock and fuckin’ roll.

BUZZCOCKS – “Spiral Scratch”

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BUZZCOCKS – “Spiral Scratch” (Reissued 7″/CD)
I know when to complain about the canon, and I know when to shut up. If that seems a cop-out, too bad: if it wasn’t for Buzzcocks’ status as a Great Band we’d not have been blessed with the re-appearance of this EP, 9 minutes which equal their entire subsequent career and kill most other bands’ lifeworks dead. Listen to “Boredom” in the right mood and every good thing that’s ever happened in pop music finds an echo in it somewhere. Listen to “Boredom” in any mood and you hear one of the most perfect singles ever to exist – the two-note guitar solo is rightly famous, but the dead-stop beforehand, and Devoto’s sardonic “b-dum b-dum”, are even more life-giving. Own it: I could talk for ages about the thrill and chaos of it all, even after twenty-three years, but as I said, I know when to shut up. And so did they.


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BLACK BOX RECORDER – “Weekend” (Free with Uncut, March 2000)
1998’s “Child Psychology” was an indie gimmick-hit, due to a sharp chorus and Sarah Nixey’s deadly pristine vocals (Hannibal Lecter as Roedean head girl). It was slick, glib stuff, and I didn’t like it much, but “Weekend” is beautiful. Almost nothing’s changed – the music is still minimal clockwork-pop, Nixey’s voice is as cut-glass as before – but Black Box Recorder are cutting deeper nonetheless, and writing superb hooks is only a part of it. Luke Haines’ other band shifted up a gear last year, when he stopped making his anger and frustration the main attraction in his songs and started using it as a malignant background hum: on this evidence, Black Box Recorder are going to make a similar leap with “Weekend”s parent album.

For now, this is the best ‘alternative’ track I’ve heard this year; intelligent, oblique and reserved. The last band to prod mundanity’s surface like this were Frazier Chorus, and Black Box Recorder answer the same question they did – can you turn the absolutely ordinary into extraordinary music? You knew what the answer was, of course, but it’s nice to be reminded like this.